Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, and radio and TV personality. He is best-known for writing, along with the economist Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics (2005) and SuperFreakonomics (2009),[…]

If we treated politics more like a real profession, we would all be a lot better off, explains Freakonomics co-author Stephen J. Dubner. Never a stranger to offbeat or unconventional wisdom, Dubner argues in favor of paying very high salaries to politicians in order to encourage stronger candidates to enter the market.

Stephen J. Dubner: If we want politics to be the kind of arena where you’re attracting and encouraging really competent people who do a job well because that’s what they’re supposed to do, then you have to pay them a salary that’s commensurate with that. If I want to hire a software engineer at Google to be world-class or if I want to hire someone at a bank or someone at an environmental firm or someone at a utility that I want to be really, really, really good, I don’t say well, you know, I’ll let these people kind of pick themselves with the popular vote and then I won’t pay them very much and I’ll just see how they do. 

Singapore is probably the best example. Singapore pays its elected officials a lot of money on par with what you’d make as, you know, a banker, a lawyer, a management consultant, or something like that. And so that changes A, the pool if people you are drawing from and B, the way that people feel about the job. It’s no longer like, "Well, I got into this for public service, but it’s really hard to serve the public. So I’ll serve myself a little bit and then I’ll do the job in order to enrich myself now or later." Instead you have a bunch of people who treat it like a real profession. Our politics is, in fact, not very professional even though it appears to be from the outside. Then additionally I would like to say well, you know, wouldn’t it be nice to reward politicians or officials, government officials if they actually do a good job? Because right now they get paid exactly the same whether they do really well or do nothing or do really poorly. So what about this? What about, let’s say, for every piece of legislation, for every project or for every panel that you’re involved in why don’t we put some measurables on it, right.

Why don’t we decide what are the goals? What are we trying to accomplish with this new piece of, let’s say, education legislation? And if let’s say our goal is to raise the test scores of U.S. children by 10 percentage points. That’s our goal, right. Why don’t we put a timeframe on it? Let’s say 10 years from now that’s our goal. Well I would love nothing more as a citizen and as a taxpayer to say that, you know, Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan — let’s say he’s responsible for this plan and he’s got, let’s say, 100 or 200 or 500 people working with him. I would love to treat that like a project, like a goal that’s got a deliverable. And if they reach that goal 10 years from now long after he’s Secretary of Education, we’ll write him a check. I would love to write Arnie Duncan a check for $2 million from the U.S. taxpayers for having taken a job and done it well and accomplished a goal. That’s the way the real world works, right. You get hired based on how good you are. You get paid based on how well you do. If you don’t do well you get fired or you get paid less. If we treated politics like more of a profession like it should be we would all be a lot better off.